If I tell you I was working on something and then I got distracted, you probably visualize me dropping whatever I was working on and going to do something else.
But as any ADHDer can tell you, it’s entirely possible to continue whatever you were doing and be distracted at the same time. That’s what I mean when I talk about action without attention.
It helps to think of action and attention as things that are only loosely related to each other. When you’re performing a certain action, ideally that’s where your attention is focused. In practice, though, you can be doing one thing and paying attention to something else. Your actions do not line up with where your attention is focused.
Action without attention is how so-called careless mistakes happen. Action without attention is the milk and the cupboard and words missing from your emails. It’s the reason I just shipped my sister’s birthday present to myself.
This is one of those things that can happen to anyone, but just seems to happen more to people with ADHD. Anyone can have their attention flag when performing habitual actions. But when you have the executive functioning impairments of ADHD, it’s that much easier to set out for the grocery store on Saturday morning and suddenly realize that you’re ten minutes into your weekday work commute.
Interestingly, action without attention comes with a complement: attention without action, of course! If action without attention is about losing focus on whatever you’re doing, attention without action means having trouble translating your thoughts about what you should be doing into actions.
Both of these involve a sort of decoupling of your attention and your actions, an inability to properly line up what you’re thinking about and what you’re doing. Action without attention is about your attention drifting from the task and hand, whereas attention without action is about not following through on your plans by converting them into concrete actions. In either situation, though, there’s a problem with harnessing your brainpower to perform tasks efficiently and deliberately.
How to take action without attention and turn it into action with attention? The obvious answer, as you’ve probably been told before, is to “pay attention!” As far as how to actually do that, well, that’s anyone’s guess.